Microplastics Are Everywhere: Land, Sea And Air

Plastics took off in the 20th century, with the new class of materials finding all manner of applications that metal, wood and paper simply couldn’t deliver on. Every field from electronics to the packaging of food found that plastics could play a role.

Now, over 150 years since the development of Parkesine in 1867, we’re now realizing that plastics come with more than a few drawbacks. They don’t break down well in nature, and now microplastics are beginning to appear all over the Earth, even in places where humans rarely tread. It seems they may even spread via the air, so let’s take a look at this growing problem and what can be done about it.

What Are Microplastics?

Microbeads became a popular ingredient of many cosmetics like exfoliating scrubs. Some jurisdictions have now banned microbeads for their perceived negative impact on the environment. Credit: Lewin Day

Microplastics are commonly defined as any type of plastic particle less than 5 mm in length. The term was coined by Richard Thompson, who discovered the particles in abundance on British beaches while working as a marine ecologist in 2004. The particles are shed from all manner of plastic items, from food and beverage containers to polyester fleece clothing.

Microplastic particles have been found everywhere; in table salt, drinking water, and crucially, even floating in the air itself. Transport via the wind has carried microplastics to far off-locales where humans rarely tread, with particles found in Arctic snow and in remote mountainous areas too.

The simple fact is, there is a huge amount of plastic out in the environment. With heat, UV light and general exposure, it’s all degrading and shedding tiny particles all the time. Many of these are so small and light that they can float freely in water or even the air, and have been found at altitudes of 11,000 feet in aerial sampling.

Is It A Problem?

Given the prevalence of these plastics across land, sea, and air, it’s perhaps unsurprising to know that we may be ingesting anywhere up to 100,000 microplastic particles daily. The fact that you’re not regularly fishing out chunks of plastic from your bottled water or food indicates that most are smaller than can be seen with the naked eye.

A study by the World Wildlife Foundation stated that people may be consuming up to five grams of plastic a week, roughly as much as makes up the average credit card. This figure was quickly cited far and wide by the world’s media, but other studies have determined human intake to be much lower, on the order of perhaps one credit card a year in the worst cases. Median levels, however, are expected to be much lower. Interestingly, microplastics in the air are considered a significant contributor to these figures, though bottled water and seafood are bigger concerns.

Artificial turf made out of ground-up tires is shown here as a source of microplastics in the environment, with the particles often washed away by rain.
Credit: Soleincitta, CC-BA-SA-4.0

The problem is that the impact of this microplastic intake on human health is not yet clear. Studies are only just beginning to look at the issue, and it’s a very complicated thing to investigate. Microplastics come in a variety of materials, all with their own unique properties, and may absorb toxins from the environment or interact chemically in various ways themselves.

Plastic particles behave differently depending on their size too. Great concern exists around nanoplastics, which are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier responsible for protecting our brains from the nastier stuff circulating in our body. These particles are also small enough that they could cross into cells and disrupt their behaviour.

Thus far, the potential health effects remain unclear and the subject of further research. However, there are broader concerns too. Microplastic particles could come to have an effect on the Earth’s climate. Thus far, research suggests that microplastics in the air could create a scattering effect, reflecting sunlight back into space in a similar way to aerosols in the atmosphere. However, the effect would be small, especially given the concentrations of microplastics presently in the air. These particles can also theoretically absorb heat emitted from Earth, so the effect is not guaranteed to be entirely positive. To determine the absolute net effect will likely require further investigation, though pumping lots of tiny plastic particles in the air won’t be a solution to global warming. It would cause altogether too many other problems along the way.

Current Outlook

At this stage, researchers aren’t yet convinced there’s a huge risk to human health. Levels are still too low to cause obvious problems. However, the problem is concerning, and with the huge amount of plastic degrading in landfills and rivers and oceans around the world, it’s not going away any time soon.

Microplastics are generally too small to be effectively cleaned up after the fact. If they do turn out to be deleterious to our health or survival, the only way to solve the issue will be to collect as much plastic trash as possible from the environment and minimise production as well.

In any case, research will continue to shed light on the scale of the issue, and ideally, potential solutions. In the mean time, cutting down on your plastic intake is simple. Reduce the use of plastic food containers and bottles, and especially stop microwaving food and beverages in those containers.

It’s not all alarmist, of course. We’ve been living with microplastics in the environment for years now, even if we didn’t know it. Particulate pollution from other sources is also a problem, and that hasn’t taken us out just yet either. As it stands, however, the microplastics in our food, water, and air are something we’ll have to continue living with in the meantime.

Banner image: Microplastic particles found by researchers at Oregon State University. Credit: Oregon State University, CC-BA-SA-2.0

65 thoughts on “Microplastics Are Everywhere: Land, Sea And Air

  1. “At this stage, researchers aren’t yet convinced there’s a huge risk to human health. Levels are still too low to cause obvious problems.”

    Why does it have to be a HUGE risk to be an obvious problem? I suppose we carry on and it’s someone else’s problem when it is?

    1. Unfortunately plastic is super useful, glass milk jugs can easily shatter when accidentally dropped, but plastic jugs do not. Plastic is so awesome that we line paper milk cartons with it. Wax makes paper resist liquid for a few hours, a thin plastic film makes paper resist liquid for weeks.

      1. Whilst I agree about the shatter hazard, I grew up in an era when milk came in glass bottles that were collected and recycled constantly and yet we somehow managed not to be constantly clearing up broken glass. Similarly pop (soda in the US?) came in bottles with a deposit, so a siazable proportion of my childhood income was derived from returning these bottles. Convenience culture will only last so long, conservation of the environment and resources has to happen at some point or the generations that follow are completely screwed.

        1. Nothing is binary.

          Go back to glass, there’s more weight to move around. Paper bags look better than plastic, but the former have their cost too. Biodegradeable bags were a thing for a while, but they kept landing in recycling, where they’d do damage. They work well if a single one flutters in the wilderness, but aplarently don’t degrade in landfill.

          1. I have been getting milk in glass bottles for two years now, and none have broken. The bottles are delivered and picked up from my front door by the milkman, so weight isn’t a big issue (even for him).

            It seems better for the environment as the milk is from a local dairy, so less food miles all round. Shame about the farting cows though….

          2. “more weight”

            And compounding that issue glass bottles have to be a lot thicker. There’s a reason shattered milk bottles weren’t the major problem that some here seem to think they would be. That glass was thick!

            So a lot more space on the truck is taken by container vs product. It’s going to take more trucks to ship the same amount of product.

            Checkout the newer water bottles. Yes, the value of having bottled water at all is very debatable. (except maybe in Flint) But could we start packing other drinks such as milk and pop in thin walled bottles like that?

            So if it’s the environment one is concerned with we have to have enough information to properly compare the effects of the micro-plastics with the additional CO2 that would be emitted trucking all that glass back and forth.

          3. This is a reply to Twisty Plastic’s question about thin-walled plastic.

            When the volume goes up you need thicker plastic because of the weight. With carbonated drinks you also have to take into account the pressure of the carbonation. Plus you have to be able to stand it up, so more plastic just to keep the sides from bowing.

            That having been said, milk sold in large volumes (>2L) here in Canada is often sold in bags. A thin-walled exterior bag holds 3 or 4 thicker-walled inner bags of 1L each. The combined thickness of both bags is still quite a bit less than the thickness of the typical milk jug or pop (soda) bottle. To serve you take one of the inner bags, slide it into pitcher-like holder with handle, and snip off a corner of the bag.

        2. I agree, but it seems they will keep going that direction. For example, in the US, Snapple used to come in glass bottles, until about two years ago. Not only is it harmful to the environment, but the product out of these plastic bottles doesn’t even taste right.
          I think in Spain, either Coke or Pepsi still comes in glass bottles, and they are returned to the bottling plant to be processed or washed, and beer distributors in the US used to do the same with beer bottles , and only just stopped doing that in the early 90s.

          1. They’re greenwashing the Snapple bottles saying the transportation footprint is lower and YoU cAn ReCyCle PlAsTiC. I used to buy Snapple because they were one of the few companies reliably selling glass bottle, uncarbonated drinks.

            I wonder how much of the Snapple transition was influenced by parks and venues that don’t allow glass bottles?

          2. Nah, here in MX the Coke Glass bottles are only used for the 500/600 ml size, and the rest of all sizes (from 250 ml to 3 liters) PET bottles are used.
            Probably only less than 10% of soda bottling uses glass.

        3. I think a lot of you are getting hung up on specifically milk bottles and not bottles in general. Every Saturday when I walk the dog into town there is a new pile of broken glass somewhere.
          If all alcohol was served in plastic or metal, there would be a lot less broken glass in parks and streets.
          And don’t forget glass and plastic are not the only 2 options. Steel/alu cans are lighter than glass, and less bad for environment than plastic. (Except some of them are plastic lined…)

          1. While I can see your point I’m not sure it would make much odds to the amount of broken glass – bottles are very very hard to break by accident, so most of the broken glass is presumably drunken folk being stupid, if they can’t get their kicks breaking the bottles what will they break instead?

          2. Apparently a lot of the ALU cans are produced in China which relies on coal for power to turn bauxite in to finished aluminium, so there’s a trade off for where your pollution is generated…

      2. Milk jugs also shouldn’t be rinsed and re-used, there is some sort of chemical in the plastic that degrades. I always preferred to re-use glass bottles. I remember when you could get gatorade in a glass bottle, it was a half gallon size maybe. We would wash and fill with ice water and use it for a water bottle

    2. “At this stage, researchers aren’t yet convinced there’s a huge risk to human health. Levels are still too low to cause obvious problems.”

      That also says to me its unknown if there _ins’t_ a risk to human health. If I had a choice I’d prefer to err on the side of caution and reduce the use.

  2. It seems to me that every single use plastic item should be mandated to be made of bioplastic or the company having it’s own recycling program. Bioplastics are getting MUCH better and we should really stop making plastic for ephemeral products.

      1. Medical use should be properly disposed of so single use or not nothing plastic gets to escape..

        I’d also second doubts on bio-plastics though – bio plastics that actually are environmentally safe are called Wood (etc) – when you go playing with the chemistry so much to make a ‘bio plastic’ it might as well be an oil derived plastic for the micro plastic problems its going to create still – where sticking with natural long chain polymer ‘plastic’ like products they should break down and be processed safely by everything in some other fashion.

    1. As in biodegradable? The one silver lining to our nigh-immortal plastic waste now is that it sequesters some carbon. I’m not sure adding more decomposition to the ecosystem is exactly helpful.

    2. The problem with “bio” plastics is that the majority of them still aren’t actually bio-degradable, some of them (like PLA) are compostable in industrial composters in very specific conditions, but it’s currently unlikely for the majority of PLA to ever end up in a facility like that. Same goes for a lot of other so-called bio-plastics. “bioplastic” also doesn’t really mean anything. In the industry afaik it’s mostly used just to denote that a plastic was made from biological sources (so corn based PLA and such) but that doesn’t say anything on how that plastic behaves once it get’s released into the environment after use.

      1. I suggest anyone who believe PLA is compostable try to do it. I too have read that there is something like a 30% breakdown after 90 days @ a temp of 170°F in an industrial composting station with sufficient oxygen, but I really wonder. My kids were sent home from school with the “good plastic” as a gift form a company that makes lunch boxes. We put ours on the compost pile and then dug it out 18 months later and it was fine wxcept for some discoloration. The marketing line is, “It is made from starch.”.. which it isn’t really.. it is made from something ELSE that was made from starch.. and like a bunch of other chemicals to get that starch to build polymeres that it never natrually would.

    3. Most plastics CAN’T be recycled. Only type 2 and 3, and most of that also goes into landfills. About the only materials I’m aware of that actually get recycled is aluminum, and maybe glass, simply because of the value of the materials. Paper? Usually just stored in warehouses until someone wants the space back, then it’s burned or off to the landfill. Even according to environment scientists and the Vice President of the Plastics Coalition, recycling was a scam they started so that they could sell more plastics, and the images of people littering that they used to show in commercials were to make people think that they were the problem, not the industry.

  3. “A study by the World Wildlife Foundation stated that people may be consuming up to five grams of plastic a week, roughly as much as makes up the average credit card.”

    Thank you for not just running with this. Too many times the ‘shocking statistic’ gets a ton of play, but the correction or counter point never gets any press. How many people out there are still super concerned over cow farts after the alarmist reporting on it?

    1. https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_methane.php

      “Enteric fermentation (food digestion) in ruminant animals also produces methane emissions, and digestion by cattle accounts for 96 percent of U.S. methane emissions from this source”

      Yes, most of that is in the form of burps and poop decomposing, rather than farts. But cattle contribute more than a third, less than a half, of the US’s total methane emissions.

      1. Hi Elliot, sorry you are tasked with reviewing my comments, I’m really a nice guy.

        The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would suggest that methane from cow burps is three to four times less of a problem than we thought. In chapter 7, page 123, they explained that the effect of constant methane emissions on global surface temperature had been overstated by a factor of three to four.

        Cows are a constant source of methane. If the size of cattle herds doesn’t grow, the methane produced doesn’t grow either. The US cattle herd has not changed significantly over the past 20 years.

        The thing that people don’t talk about is that methane acts very differently from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for around 30 to 100 times longer than methane. Methane is broken down through oxidation and absorbed by plants and soils as part of the sink effect. Almost all of the global methane emissions today are broken down through natural effects.

          1. Here ya go!
            Number of cows: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/animal-products/cattle-beef/sector-at-a-glance/
            Off of a peak of over 130 million around 1974 it dropped under 100 million around 1990, and has roughly stayed there. Increases in overall system efficiency means we feed more with less cattle. Worldwide numbers are similar.

            IPCC full report link here: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/ (warning, it is a huge PDF) On page 1737 of the report (page 123 of chapter 7) it states “By comparison expressing methane emissions as CO2 equivalent emissions using GWP-100 overstates the effect of constant methane emissions on global surface temperature by a factor of 3-4.” Basically stating that you can’t compare methane to CO2 directly. Compared to CO2, the planet naturally uses a much much higher percentage of methane. Also, it takes CO2 roughly 1000 years to decay by itself, whereas it only take methane about a decade.

            Methane source vs sink: https://www.globalcarbonproject.org/methanebudget/20/files/MethaneInfographic2020.png

            Example of alarmist media I don’t like: https://gizmodo.com/how-do-we-know-cows-are-so-bad-for-the-climate-1847569895

          2. @tadpole

            “The greenhouse gas, which is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide”

            Again, this sort of statement focuses on one tiny part of a very complex equation. It would be as if you were a cost cutting engineer who replaced every steel part in an assembly with a plastic part, just because it is cheaper. As I’ve said, and offered ample evidence, methane does not act like CO2, so simply focusing on one part of the equation is ignorant at best, and down right untruthful at worst.

  4. I have often wondered about having my brain plasticize after my death, but always though it would be a bit expensive; nice to know that corporations are doing it for free whilst I am still alive. /sarc.

  5. Landfills aren’t compost heaps. Some places now collect food garbage separately and compost it, the rest is landfill. Get used to using the slop bucket and setting it out too. Landfills are repositories and some day they will be mined for metals and energy then there will be some leftovers to bury again.

    As a kid in 50-60’s we knew the routine, set the milk crate out on Monday and any trip to the grocery mom said “don’t forget the empties”. Penny candies were wrapped in wax paper not a plastic trademarked thing that contains a dab of candy. Mixed metal-plastic-etc. packaging need to be banned outright. That type 1 through 7 was a con by the plastics industry. They need to pare down to about 1 or 2 types now.

    Stores want convenience and appearance out the wazoo, shoplifting concerns weigh over all. I only go the big store and get a backpack’s fill of goods. For a while (pre covid) the big store grocery banned backpacks. That didn’t last long, ban purses too or stop that nonsense. When I go to Aldi my backpack and any of their boxes do to fill up. A box beats trying to handle all those shapeless bags into the house. Banana boxes are great! Those big stores can’t bother with a thing. Convenience has to go in business and in living period. That or it’s going to be a lot more inconvenient for the future.

    1. Yah, that one gets said a lot. But it’s hard because even if you breed an organism to live off of plastic in the lab in the wild it finds “tastier” things to eat and ignores the plastic it could be taking care of.

      But nobody seems to think it through anyway.
      What if someone actually was successful in creating a bacteria that removed plastic from the environment?

      One of the things that makes plastic so useful to us humans is the fact it doesn’t rot. Add a little paint to keep the UV off it and it lasts practically forever. So what’s going to happen when the siding on our houses and the bumpers on our cars start falling off because someone solved the microplastics problem?

      Everything becomes short-life disposable? Like it isn’t bad enough already!

      We find the next non-rotting material and decades later realize we have a problem with micro-particles of that?

      1. We certainly do think it through. We just think that plastic being more-or-less being fancy wood would be fine. Let things rot, it’s fine. We’d had hundreds of thousands of years building things of wood and stone, and decades of building things from steel and glass.

        People won’t use plastic if it’s no better than wood, and that’s just dandy.

  6. Coincidentally (?) there was an episode of Skeptoid about this today.


    My takeaway from it is: we still don’t really have any evidence that it’s a problem, but reasonable preventative measures probably can’t hurt. Trying to clean up what is already out there, however, is a fool’s errand that would almost certainly cause more damage to the planet than doing nothing.

  7. I’m more worried about the plasticizers that are released from the plastics. Phthalates are common. They are hormonal poisons that can seriously interfere with development. Their effect can be passed on to the next generation during fertilization/gestation. People have been exposed to these chemicals for decades. Little biological research was done before they were used, except work into how soft they made the plastic so companies could make money. They must have known for sure that they would leach out. They’ve been detected in Arctic mammals.

  8. Anyone concerned about the effects of microplastics might want to read a book by Jonas Salk from 1973 called, “Survival of the Wisest.. Dr. Salk’s concern at that time was mostly Styrofoam and Teflon, but he had some good stuff to say.

    A more current (and SCARIER) book is “Count Down” by Shanna Swan: https://www.amazon.com/Count-Down-Threatening-Reproductive-Development/dp/1982159294/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1637115202&sr=8-1

    1. Which is somewhat amusing since there was apush some years back to reuse plastic bottles for those fleece items.

      I recall something about special bags for washing them that contains the loose fibres.

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